Acting without acting sounds like something out of an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm and yet, if we look back upon some Hollywood’s greatest hits from the 40s and early 50s, a period that is often labelled as the industry’s golden era, we will see that the prevalent norm of the time was to blur the lines between acting and not acting. Before the likes of Brando, Clift and Dean revolutionized the art form by guiding it into a whole new dimension, Hollywood’s greatest actors were those who knew how to successfully blend their true personality with the personality of the character they played. Think of Gregory Peck’s calm and sensitive protagonist in court room dramas and war movies, Katharine Hepburn’s erratic and quirky characters in her numerous outings in slapstick comedy, or James Stewart’s wise and tender family man, most notably in It’s a Wonderful Life. These actors made a living out of blurring those lines and eventually got awarded with Oscars galore. We love them because of it and their influence on the generations that followed is undeniable. Along the way, however, I feel like the contribution of one particular star of that time has gone under the radar, a man who could effortlessly skip from movie to movie and never miss a beat in the way he went about being himself on set.
Humphrey Bogart, also known as Bogie, is nowadays most famous for his timeless appearance in what many consider the greatest cinematic love story of all time in 1942’s Casablanca, where, as Rick, the nightclub owner, he got to pronounce the essential ending words to a movie, ”Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship,” after waving goodbye to the love of his life. Casablanca proved to be Bogart’s biggest hit, and he went on to star in more iconic noir films such as The Maltese Falcon, Key Largo and The Big Sleep, where he would share the screen with his wife, Lauren Bacall, for the second time in a row. In TheTreasure of the Sierra Madre, Bogart would for the first time sink his teeth into a more demanding role, that of a greedy gold prospector whose greed would ultimately result in his downfall. But it would take Bogart another two long years before he would find the role of Dixon Steele in Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place. This was one of Bogart’s arguably best and most daring performances before his health began to deteriorate due to his chain smoking and heavy drinking, and one that, in my opinion, cemented his legacy as one of the greatest actors of his generation.
In this psychological thriller from 1950, Bogart plays a boozy screenwriter whose reputation around Hollywood is that of a cynical loner and one that doesn’t take shit from anybody, not even the hottest producer or actor on the block. He’s weary of the world he’s living in, but ironically, he can’t get away from it. He’s become a part of this cruel reality called show business. Due to some unfortunate circumstances, Dix finds himself in the middle of a murder accusation. A girl he was last seen with was found murdered and he’s the primary suspect. What follows is a hardboiled, grim love affair between Dix and Laurel (Gloria Grahame), the woman who happens to be the sole witness to prove his innocence. I say grim, because soon enough Dix begins to show signs of unease, and his initial charisma turns into strange, borderline sociopathic behavior. All of a sudden, the thing that drew Dix to Laurel, and Bogart to his fans, namely his charisma and, as described by critic Peter Bradshaw, his ”what-the-hell” attitude, is seen through a completely different lens. Suddenly, we begin to question the true reason behind this attitude, what is Dix, or rather, Bogart, hiding? Is he not who we thought he is?
Jazz Age icon and close friend of Bogart’s, Louise Brooks, argued that Dixon Steele was the role that came closest to who Bogie really was in his private life. In the film, Bogart channels his dark side as if it was a matter of life and death. In almost every scene he manages to go from charming and romantic to weary and frustrated. Was all of this an act? Often described as destructive and with a particular disdain for pretension and phoniness, Bogart embraced the part of Dixon Steele as if it was his only meaningful opportunity to openly articulate his feelings toward the world that he had spent most of his life in. Steele in fact insults his life-long manager/agent, gets into a fistfight with a cocky actor and pushes off the advances of countless Hollywood starlets. He does all of this for the sake of his art, that of writing. It is only while writing that Steele is truly able to find clarity and distance himself from his demons. Initially, his affair with Laurel gets him back to the typing machine, but eventually, it is this very same affair that exposes Steele’s deepest hidden secrets and obsessions, as he violently beats a stranger within an inch of his life right in front of Laurel and then pretends to have feelings of remorse and guilt just like the characters in his screenplays. He’s his own worst enemy, and we, just like Laurel, are terrified by this revelation.
In a paper-thin world like the movie industry, Dixon Steele is a reminder of what bubbles beneath the surface. Was this Bogart’s grim farewell to a world he once loved and helped build? Was the character of Steele his long-awaited chance to critique his fiercest enemies and phony allies? We will never know the answer to these questions, but it is worth noting that after In a Lonely Place came out, Bogart spent his remaining years playing more conventional roles in Sabrina and The Cain Mutiny, and winning an Oscar for The African Queen before his premature death in 1957. By blending into the crowd of similar characters he used to play in the early 40s, he was able to hide Dixon Steele so that for many years few people were actually aware of this brilliant, unorthodox performance. Thanks to a number of restorations the film underwent quite recently, we are now finally able to get a glimpse of who Bogart really was, and how well he masked his true self by, ironically enough, acting like himself. Because, at the end of the day, Bogie will always be Bogie, but it is important to remember that, whether we like it or not, there was more to him than charm and cigarettes.
In today’s day and age, speed is what matters most. You don’t want to bore the viewer. You want to deliver him the most vital information in the shortest amount of time. You want him to experience feelings within a short time span. You want him to get the juice of the story before he decides to switch channels or fast-forward, which, let’s admit it, we all do. One could say that the main challenge for a filmmaker is to give the viewer what he wants when he wants it. Not an easy thing to do considering how simple it is then to mess up the crucial part of the story or worse yet, mess up the whole movie. Fortunately, Pedro Almodovar, the legendary Spanish film director of the modern melodrama, embraces this challenge in his latest Oscar-nominated film, Pain and Glory.
Antonio Banderas plays Salvador Mallo, a chronically ill film director who is at a point in his life where pain is overshadowing his creativity, to the point that an old friend of his turns him onto heroin. The film jumps back and forth between Salvador’s past as a young boy in rural Spain, travelling with his mom to a new house in the countryside (which turns out to be a cave) and attending high school at a seminary for priests, to his pain-filled present, with him lying around his house, struggling to get up from bed and refusing to get back to work on a new project. However, halfway through the film, Salvador’s old friend and actor Alberto Crespo, with whom Salvador had a falling out on his most acclaimed movie thirty years prior, digs up a monologue that Salvador had stored away in his computer. The monologue turns out to be, in Alberto’s opinion, the director’s greatest, most personal piece of work, and the actor insists on putting it up at a local theater. What follows, is the movie’s best five minutes of runtime.
The premise to Salvador’s love story is in the scenes where Alberto recites the monologue to an audience. The monologue recounts the film director’s early days in Madrid in the 80s, where he had to put his career on hold in order to take care of his boyfriend, who at the time was struggling with a heroin addiction. This premise is painful. As painful as Salvador’s present day illness. What Alberto does not know, however, is that Salvador’s real-life former lover is in the audience watching his performance. Tears streaming down his face. A broken smile. A slight twitch to his eyes. Turns out he’s in Madrid for work and decides to pay Salvador a visit after the show.
With this in mind, we enter the best five minutes of the entire film. Five minutes which will serve to tell the love story of a lifetime. The two lovers meet in Salvador’s apartment. They’ve both aged. They’re both worn down. They’ve both moved on. And yet, the moment they see each other, it’s like time stopped in their days of youth. Almodovar’s simple and effective staging of this scene allows us to savor every moment of this long-awaited reunion because we already know the backstory thanks to the preceding monologue, where through Alberto’s performance we learned of our protagonist’s most painful secrets and memories.
The tears have already been shed. We know what both Salvador and his former lover, Federico, have gone through together. Thus, in the five-minute-long reunion there is no need to go back down memory lane. Salvador and Federico can remain in the present moment. As an audience we are aware of how incredibly important the moment they are about to share is and thus Almodovar can play this scene without directly addressing us. We are already in it.
Their conversation is bare. Simple. Federico tells Salvador about his current life in distant Buenos Aires. His restaurant. His kids. His parents. But from time to time, there is a spark between the two in the form of brief moments that allude to a shared past, when Salvador says, ”I needed Madrid. I also needed you. But not in that state.” And Federico replies, ”Love is not enough to save the person you love. You say it in your monologue.”
Almodovar proceeds to unravel the love story through the acknowledgment of the audience’s intelligence. Like any good filmmaker, he believes the viewer is up to the challenge of putting the pieces from the monologue together without having the characters explicitly have to re-tell their backstory. The weight of how much this scene means is entirely up to you to figure out for yourself. When Salvador says, ”You didn’t interrupt anything, Federico. On the contrary, you filled my life like nothing and nobody has filled it until now,” it hits particularly strong, because by now we’ve witnessed how empty and trivial Salvador’s current life seems on the surface. Like a sudden plot twist, we are unexpectedly met with this rich, absorbing love story that has already taken place. We are only allowed to witness the remains of it. Almodovar achieves this without the use of flashbacks perhaps because the past Salvador and Federico have shared is better to be re-lived in the present as it is. Live the moment, not the memory (which, ironically enough is something that Salvador does throughout the entire film, except for this scene.)
The two smile looking at each other, maintaining a distance while sitting in Salvador’s living room and sipping on a glass of Tequila. But their eyes are watery. And their smiles are just like Federico’s broken smile when he was listening to the staged monologue. There is a long, rocky story behind them. And only they have access to the full version. And that is how you tell a love story in five minutes. You give the viewer an idea, a suggestion, but you trust him enough to expand on it by himself. You don’t give him cues. You don’t push him toward a clear answer. You keep him in the dark. You give him a flashlight and tell him, ”Go ahead.” And you’ll see for yourself, the pay-off to such a scene is devastatingly moving.
2020 is almost here as we are nearing the end of a fantastic decade for cinema. The 2010s have featured a steady rise in the variety of material produced by the world of filmmakers and have offered to audiences some of the greatest cinematic moments we could ever experience. The growth of this medium is undeniable: from world class film directors such as Scorsese and the Coen Brothers getting their work green lit by Netflix (The Irishman, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs) and having their films made accessible to younger, more diverse audiences through the worldwide streaming platform to indie films such as Moonlight and The Shape of Water claiming Oscar gold, to female auteurs making themselves be heard with Lady Bird, American Honey and We Need to Talk About Kevin, just to name a few, getting the recognition they deserve. Foreign cinema reinforced itself with audiences with the likes of A Separation, Ida, Roma and this year’s record-breaking Parasite. Technology is on the rise and its application in movies has revealed to us new horizons (War of the Planet of the Apes, The Irishman, Life of Pi). Blockbusters and superhero movies are now family events (Avengers: Endgame), just as biopics have become a consistent source of knowledge for most audiences (The King’s Speech, 12 Years a Slave). Cinema has no intention of slowing down. No, sir.
Here are 5 movies from this decade that prove it.
5. KILLING THEM SOFTLY (2012)
On paper, Andrew Dominik’s third feature film looks like your typical crime TV movie – a grim story about a couple of junkies robbing the wrong people and getting punished by a stone cold killer (Brad Pitt). On screen, Killing Them Softly is a brutal, blunt confrontation with America and the corrupt system behind it following the financial crisis. The words to Obama’s victory speech after his election in 2008 are blasted across the screen as we see the nastiest corners of drug infested, poverty-stricken modern day America and the people that populate it. We hear words of promise, hope, but see none of it actually taking place. The Cannes jury hated it, the studios cut it to pieces and the few people that saw it upon its release did not know what to make of it, but looking back, Killing Them Softly is as fresh and engrossing as it was back when we all thought everything was fine and dandy.
No other film has left me as shaken and puzzled as last year’s Korean masterpiece. Loosely based on a short story by Haruki Murakami, Lee Chang-dong’s film is a punch to the senses. With its simple premise about two childhood friends catching up after many years and eventually being joined by an unexpected guest (Walking Dead’s Steven Yeun) who proceeds to tell them about his favorite hobby, Burning keeps us in the dark and makes us question every step it takes without fully realizing what we are getting into. Impossible to categorize, not being a thriller nor a full-blown horror, this Korean gem is the most tense experience I’ve had in a film theater and is an essential viewing for those who enjoy guessing more than finding answers.
3. SICARIO (2015)
Recently named filmmaker of the decade by the Hollywood Critics Association, Denis Villeneuve is a force to be reckoned with. After getting his big breakthrough in Hollywood with his 2013 hit, Prisoners, Villeneuve solidified his position as one of the leading figures of today’s cinematic landscape by giving us a once-in-a-lifetime dive into the blood-soaked narco world of the US-Mexico border. Blurring the lines between good and evil, Sicario is the work of a poet with the eye of a hardened journalist reporting from the front lines. It’s a film that I keep coming back to and rediscovering all over again. With its cold, calculated attitude it is one of the greatest commentaries on the ambiguity and controversial nature of the war on drugs and a heartbreaking tribute to the victims of this bloody conflict.
2. THE MASTER (2012)
Paul Thomas Anderson’s poignant character study of a WWII veteran (Joaquin Phoenix) suffering from PTSD and seeking solace in the teachings of a cult leader (Philip Seymour Hoffman) might sound like the beginning of a bad joke. Fortunately, it is one of the greatest works to come out of this century. It is also a masterclass in acting, with Phoenix and the late Hoffman giving two of the very best performances you will ever see, the former playing the puppet and the latter playing the puppeteer. The Master is a big question mark that refuses to be stripped of its quirks, off-beat moments and complex features. It is a work that is not meant to be categorized or labelled. It simply is.
1. THE GREAT BEAUTY (2013)
The first thing you will notice about Paolo Sorrentino’s Oscar winner is the energy. The energy of the colors and music, for a film about an aging writer wandering around the streets of Rome, is like none other. Following the footsteps of Fellini, Sorrentino paints a portrait that is both beautiful and ugly of a society that goes through ups and downs, that lies to itself, that suffers and whose downfall stems from its own limitless pride. Like the greatest Italian films, The Great Beauty moves to its own tune and is impossible to tame. Who knew that a man’s quest for meaning (whatever that meaning may be; love, death, anything) in the jungle that is Rome could be so thrilling to watch.
On a snowy day in the woods of present day Austria in AD 180, Maximus rallied his troops before the final battle and shouted, ”What we do in life, echoes in eternity!” The battle ensued and Maximus’ men came out triumphant. This happened in Ridley Scott’s Gladiator from 2000. Meanwhile, nineteen years later, Martin Scorsese closes the second decade of this century with a much gloomier statement. One could narrow it down to, ”What we do in life is final.”
With a career spanning over 50 years, Scorsese has grown into a filmmaker whose movies tend to define specific time periods and speak for entire generations. Although set in different times and places, movies like Taxi Driver and Raging Bull became the epitome of the societal turmoil of the 70s and 80s, while Goodfellas and The Departed redefined the cinema of the 90s and mid 2000s by specifically reformulating the genre of gangster films and thrillers, giving audiences a reason to keep believing in a type of filmmaking that seemed on the verge of destruction on behalf of the Hollywood machine. If there was a cinematic mind who could bring us an epic the likes of which we haven’t seen since The Godfather and Once Upon a Time in America and still find a way to keep audiences engaged, it’s Martin Scorsese.
Based on Charles Brandt’s book I Heard You Paint Houses which served as a memoir for union teamster turned mafia hitman Frank Sheeran, The Irishman was always meant to be made into a full-scale epic as its story spanned almost half a century and covered major historical milestones such as the Bay of Pigs Invasion, the Kennedy assassination, Italian-American Civil Rights League movement, the McClellan hearings and finally, Jimmy Hoffa’s infamous disappearance in 1975. And as monumental and grand the scale of this project turned out to be, Scorsese’s latest vehicle is an extremely personal piece of work, specifically in the way it goes about tackling the theme of mortality, a theme that is used to set the film apart from the director’s other ventures into the genre such as Mean Streets, Goodfellas and Casino.
”He couldn’t finish [explaining the character of Frank Sheeran]. He was too emotionally involved,” said Scorsese in a recent panel talk at the AFI Fest 2019, when retelling the story of how De Niro first approached him with the idea for a new collaborative project. Scorsese continued, ”That’s when I realized… maybe this is where we have to go. Maybe this gives us the opportunity to make another picture not in the same vein. Maybe we could find depth in this.” Finally, the director concluded this explanation with a key sentence, ”What is it? It turns out it’s us… life.”
Life goes by fast. In Hollywood especially. Life is also fragile. Scorsese would know best. This is the same man who almost went mad after New York, New York turned out to be the flop of the year in 1977, who was rumored to have threatened a producer with a gun when Taxi Driver had been initially X-rated, who was targeted by the Catholic Church and other religious groups after the release of the highly controversial Last Temptation of Christ, who abused drugs to the point he ended up in a hospital before De Niro gave him a book that saved his life and inspired him to make one of the great masterpieces of modern cinema, Raging Bull.
At 77 years of age and with almost 40 directorial efforts behind his belt including feature films and documentaries, The Irishman is not just another number in the Italian-American director’s vast filmography. This is a chapter, a chapter that Scorsese along with his long-time friends, friends from way back, from teenage years spent in Little Italy and Queens, including De Niro, Pesci, Pacino, Keitel and others, decided to write together. A last ride? Perhaps not. Certainly it is a collaboration that when looked at from the perspective of these aging stars takes on a whole new form.
In The Irishman, we witness the rise of a WWII veteran from truck driver to mafia hitman and finally, to personal friend and bodyguard of Jimmy Hoffa. We witness America change, we witness a nation in turmoil go through happy times and times of bloodshed, widespread distrust and panic.
But this passage of time is not as colorful and cool as the one we experience in Goodfellas, when we get to hang out with Henry Hill and the gang, and see them grow in rank, rob banks, have romances and eventually, from to time, get to kill somebody. It is also not as glamorous and dynamic as the passage of time seen in Casino, when it seems like there is no end to Ace Rothstein’s success in the city of dreams, Las Vegas. While yes, in both films our protagonists meet their end in a rather sobering fashion, with Hill getting to spend the rest of his life in some remote part of the country under the witness protection program, and Ace having most of his estate taken away by the authorities, The Irishman refuses to fall into the rise-and-fall scenario throughout its entire lengthy run-time.
The rise of I spoke of earlier in this paragraph is a slow and quite dreadful one. Our protagonist, Frank Sheeran, is a strong-arm, a heavy-set man with blue eyes, wide shoulders and an imposing figure. He’s strong enough to carry hindquarters and change tires. The one feature that makes him stand out in mobster Russell Bufalino’s eyes (Joe Pesci is back, baby! And better than ever) is his obedience to orders. When you tell Frank what to do, you can bet your ass he’s going to see it through. He’s a man who goes through the motions and despite stating in his introduction as an elderly man in a wheelchair looking back on his life, ”I was one of a thousand working stiffs. Until I wasn’t no more,” Frank finds himself victim of a system, a system that is much larger and much more powerful than a single man. Once he is sucked into the underworld of Philadelphia and starts carrying out the orders on behalf of Bufalino and Angelo Bruno (Harvey Keitel back in a Scorsese movie for the first time since 1988), Frank witnesses history. He claims he delivered weapons for the CIA to be used in the Bay of Pigs. Moreover, in the book, the retired hitman hints he might have been implicated in delivering the rifles that would later on be used to assassinate JFK. History literally flashes by Frank. And yet… and yet Frank is unaware of it. De Niro’s Sheeran stays a working stiff. He completes his tasks and deals with the world in an extremely dissociative way. When Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino at his best in years) asks him, ”Would you like to be a part of this history?” Sheeran says in a dry, almost robotic manner, ”Yes… sir. I would.” And while the two become close friends, with Frank stating numerous times that Hoffa was the greatest man he ever knew, the Irishman is unable to truly engage with the world around him. The only familiar corners for him are mob hang-outs and union picket lines.
Critics and fans have pointed out the absence of a truly meaningful female character. However, I cannot help but find, similarly to Scorsese, the character of Frank’s daughter, Peggy, as the key to the puzzle. Peggy has very few lines throughout the entirety of the film, but her silence speaks volumes of how her father goes about living his life. She watches as the heavy-set man quietly exits the house at night to carry out a hit. She watches as her father shoves a gun into his pocket before going on a trip. She watches the man sitting across the table from her, reading the morning newspaper with the headlines of a grizzly murder he most likely committed. He offers no answers. But she’s figured him out. And she pities him. And as the years go by, the little girl turns into a teenager and eventually into an adult woman with a family, but her silence remains and acts as a reminder to Frank of what this life he’s so proudly gone through, from veteran to truck driver to bodyguard and even union boss, had to offer and what he’s missed out on.
Unlike Sheeran, Jimmy Hoffa was a man with principles who fought for survival with any means necessary. He was as popular as Elvis and as opposed as a Communist. He was a folk hero and a public enemy. He had life-long friends and sworn opponents like Robert F. Kennedy. He was a fanatic when it came to being on time and staying sober. He was proud and ultimately, this pride cost him his life.
In The Irishman, Hoffa is the ultimate embodiment of a man coming to terms with his own mortality. After doing four years of prison time and turning his back on the gangsters that helped him grow in power as president of the union for 15 years, Hoffa’s on his own. His extravagant temper filled with wild outbursts and blunt accusations soon sees him on the receiving end of serious threats. ”What don’t you people understand?” says Hoffa upon a confrontation with Pesci’s Bufalino. ”It’s not about money. This is my union.” As viewers, we witness Hoffa slowly but surely sink with the ship he so lovingly protected and fought for over the years. The man whose word used to be worth more than the president’s is not on a pedestal anymore. He’s become touchable. And instead of listening to Sheeran’s advice to step down and enjoy what his career brought him, Hoffa’s fighting spirit persists. Because that’s all he’s got. In the face of his own mortality, his life hanging on a very thin thread, Hoffa chooses to stay true to himself, to his legacy and reputation, unaware of the fact that the people out there to hurt him have no respect for such things. ”They wouldn’t dare,” he says.
The much talked about de-aging VFX technology contributes to the theme of mortality. Instead of looking at it from a purely technical standpoint, I encourage everyone to see past the hiccups and imperfections and incorporate them as part of the grand scheme of things. We see some of cinema’s greatest actors go through a process meant to rejuvenate them and help give the film a structured sense of narrative rather than have different, younger actors play the same parts and then as the story progresses, switch them with their older counterparts.
One cannot help but think about the inevitability of mortality as we see De Niro play what is supposed to be a twenty-year old soldier with the physique of a seventy-six year-old man, who can hardly lift up a heavy rifle. When forty-year old Hoffa is supposed to get up and storm out of a room in a frenzy, we see Pacino struggle to maintain his balance while walking away in a pair of slippers. It’s imperfect. But it fits. And it underlines the nature of these characters, and the people behind them.
As a fan, I see my idols have a hard time in doing what once came natural to them. I see De Niro, who used to transform his body for the sake of the art form, struggle with walking at a faster pace. I see Pesci, whom I remember from his hilarious stunts in Home Alone and his larger-than-life presence in films like Goodfellas and Casino, walk down a set of stairs with a clearly pained expression on his face. Even with the most sophisticated technology… You cannot stop the machine. You cannot stop life. As Bufalino tells Frank, when giving him one final yet life-altering order, ”It’s what it is.”
Was this Scorsese’s swan song? Certainly not (as he’s already preparing for Killers of the Flower Moon, set for filming in 2020). However, The Irishman is undoubtedly a testament to the careers of some of cinema’s finest artists. It is an epic confrontation with the past and a final stand-off with what is to come. Whatever that may be.
”You did a good thing for a bad man,” is one of the first things that Lorenzo, De Niro’s character in A Bronx Tale, tells his son, Calogero. This is also one of the first moral dilemmas we are presented with as we witness the coming of age of an Italian-American boy in the 1960s Bronx in De Niro’s directorial debut from 1993. What is most remarkable about this personal favorite of mine is how we get to experience, similarly to what I wrote here for Boyz n the Hood, the moral ambiguity of actions that certain characters must take in order to survive in a tough environment. A Bronx Tale is a perfect example of how cinema can be a source of life lessons and how as a medium it can challenge and test the audience through the journey of its characters.
Based on Chazz Palminteri’s one-man play of the same title, A Bronx Tale tells the story of a young boy who must makes sense of his environment through the teachings of two very different men. One being his father, Lorenzo, and the other being the local gangster, Sonny (played by Palminteri himself). The latter takes Calogero under his wing after the boy refuses to testify against him in a murder case as the only witness. That’s when the boy proudly tells his father ”I didn’t rat, Dad. I did good, Dad. I did a good thing. Right, Dad?” and to his surprise Lorenzo gives him an answer that confuses him even more. ”You did a good thing for a bad man.” That seems to be the code on the streets of the Bronx.
De Niro’s character is one of his most fascinating ones and one that I feel doesn’t get talked about enough. In a tribute to his late father, Robert De Niro Sr. who passed away the year this film was released, De Niro delivers one of his most nuanced performances. This is certainly no Raging Bull, Taxi Driver nor Cape Fear, as the actor puts on the clothes of a regular bus driver working minimum-wage, with the sole interest of keeping his family safe and sound and his son away from trouble. But trouble in this part of New York is inevitable for a young boy like Calogero. And De Niro’s Lorenzo knows this. His vision of the world may be limited, he may be old-fashioned and prejudiced (in Lorenzo’s mind Italians should only marry among themselves), but he’s seen his fair share of pain and suffering around him and the movie does a brilliant job of communicating this to us. In a neighborhood of crooks, yes-men and gangsters, Lorenzo is one of the few to go against the tide and follow his own path. When Sonny, as a sign of gratitude for his son’s silence, offers Lorenzo some extra money under the table, Lorenzo does not hesitate in refusing the offer despite that his own wife admits afterwards, ”We could have used some extra money around here.”De Niro’s character is one that we don’t see very often nowadays. Perhaps it’s because he’s not contemporary in his attitude. Or maybe it’s because he’s just not cool enough. And that is also why as the years go by, Calogero finds himself drifting more and more towards Sonny, the king of the streets and as Calogero himself puts it ”My God down here.”
Sonny is indeed the God of the Bronx. Even the local priest does not dare speak against him during confession. Unlike Lorenzo, Sonny oozes coolness and danger. His word is the Bible, and yet despite the prestige and respect that comes with being a boss, he is not the traditional boss we are used to seeing in films. He’s no Vito Corleone. He’s not a stone cold calculating machine. The fear he generates is not through actions but his words and the way he carries himself. His treatment of others is fair. He’s no bully nor psycho. And as we get to know him along with Calogero, his apprentice, we realize we are looking at him through a different lens. Throughout the run-time of the movie it becomes evident that both Lorenzo and Sonny are looked at from the same perspective – that of a father figure. They are put on the same pedestal. Working man and gangster. The lessons they teach Calogero come from different settings – one being the family home, the other being the streets – but they’re just as valuable. When asked whether it is better to be loved or feared, Sonny tells Calogero ”It’s nice to be both, but it’s very difficult. I would rather be feared. Fear lasts longer than love.” Meanwhile, Lorenzo earlier on in the movie points out, ”People don’t love him. They fear him. There is a difference.”
In his directorial debut, De Niro skillfully paints a vivid picture of racial tension, peer pressure and the de facto interlinked paths of fear and love. The world around Calogero is one filled with borders between blacks and whites and where one false move can lead to drastic consequences. Being loved out here is a privilege that not many can afford. But so is being feared. And Calogero can’t seem to find a compromise between the two. The world in A Bronx Tale is a separate world on its own, where rules are different and you best learn them fast. Yet, what is most admirable about the film is how the two characters, Lorenzo and Sonny, work towards the same goal: to keep Calogero away from danger, to keep him mindful of his surroundings. Sonny does it by disrupting the kid’s illusions and telling him that his baseball idol, Mickey Mantle, doesn’t give a shit whether Calogero can afford to pay his rent or not, so why should Calogero care about his batting average? Meanwhile, Lorenzo emphasizes the opposite, namely belief in ideals. His whole mantra revolves around believing in what is right, what is good and what is inspiring to us, as he keeps repeating to his son, ”The saddest thing in life is wasted talent.”
The two father figures in A Bronx Tale are at first sight polar opposites. The way they think, the way they act and the way they go about life couldn’t be more different. Yet their teachings compliment each other and help Calogero fill in the gaps. That is remarkable. Nowadays movies tend to stick to one train of thought because it is less risky and offers easier answers for the audience to grasp. A Bronx Tale, however, refuses to do so. The movie purposefully confronts Lorenzo and Sonny’s worldviews and makes us reflect on our own convictions and beliefs. The whole secret is finding the balance between the two teachings. Love and fear. Black and white. Working man and gangster.
If I told you that Quentin Tarantino, the master of dialogue, on-screen violence and epic cinematic twists had made a movie that celebrates life over death, would you believe me? After all, death has always been Tarantino’s omnipresent fixation. Death, be it in the form of revenge (Kill Bill, Django Unchained) or a mere accident, product of unfortunate circumstances (Pulp Fiction’s ”I shot Marvin in the face!”, Inglourious Basterds’ bar scene) has always played a prominent role in Tarantino’s filmography. His stories usually begin and end in death. A vicious cycle that has bugged me as a viewer numerous times as I always wished that he’d eventually choose a different path.
Tarantino, despite loving his characters and treating them like his own children, has been known for being ruthless to them. It’s why we watch his movies. Because we love that thrill of uncertainty of who’s up next on the chopping block.
And that’s why his latest film was a pleasant and much needed departure from that particular element of Quentin’s vision. And perhaps that is also why Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood is arguably Tarantino’s best film in years. For the first time we see the provocative writer-director steer clear of most of the tropes seen in his latter films and go into fairly unfamiliar territory. What follows is a very poetic depiction of a time and place that most of us had forgot all about, or better yet, had never entered before.
Critics have labelled Once Upon a Time as ”Tarantino’s love letter to Hollywood” which is undoubtedly a right conclusion, but as I came home from the movie I found myself thinking more and more about what the main subject matter of the movie really is. In order to find the answer I was looking for I thought about the key to any Tarantino film: the characters that inhabit the world.
The first thing that popped into my head was the sequence where Sharon Tate (played by an excellent Margot Robbie), the symbol of a new wave in Hollywood of youth, controversies and thought-provoking attitude in the face of different current affairs including the Vietnam War, America’s grueling fight against Communism and the hippie revolution, sneaks into a theater to watch her own performance in The Wrecking Crew (1969). The young starlet sits in the front row overwhelmed by the sight of her own face up on the big screen, smiling at the sound of the audience’s reactions. It is in that sequence that Tarantino serves us the film’s theme on a silver platter: life. Here is Sharon Tate, actress, activist, model and wife to Roman Polanski, whose name has become synonymous with the Charles Manson murders. Most of us know the name due to the tragic circumstances of her premature death at the hands of a group of fanatics, sensationalized in countless documentaries and reports over the years, subject to speculations and needless conspiracy theories. Sharon Tate is synonymous with death then, in its cruelest, senseless and most terrifying form. Yet we see her live and breathe. We see her sit in a theater and giggle like a little school girl at the sound of the audience’s clapping. We see Tate herself behave like a regular audience member, laughing at her own character’s shenanigans and clapping in excitement as the screening comes to an end.
Because as much as Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is about the dynamic duo of DiCaprio and Pitt; DiCaprio’s struggling actor named Rick Dalton desperately trying to maintain his career afloat and his stuntman (Pitt) carelessly roaming the streets of LA in search of new work opportunities; the film is just as much about paying tribute to the life of a woman whose legacy is centered around her death and the rather despicable coverage of it in the media spanning half a century.
Tarantino is thus setting the record straight, reminding us that despite life being potentially more difficult than death, what we do in life and how we live it should echo above the way we leave this world. There was more to Sharon Tate than just her gruesome murder: she was soulful, she had dreams like anyone of us, she had loves and like us, she made mistakes and lived with them. Charles Bukowski once wrote, ”You can’t beat death, but you can beat death in life,” and that is the case for Sharon’s portrayal in Tarantino’s latest.
Going into more detail would spoil the fun of the movie and would certainly go against everything that Tarantino has preached over the years. Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood is a film that deserves to be seen on the big screen and deserves to be seen just to remind ourselves how beautiful life can be and how sometimes blissful it is to not know what is waiting around the corner.
As the European release of Tarantino’s latest movie, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, looms over us during these warm summer days, and as the writer-director himself has been generously handing out interviews left and right stating that this may very well be his last cinematic work (it is no secret that Tarantino had always wanted to limit himself to ten features, retire and dedicate the rest of his life to writing about film and for theater), I began reflecting on what I will miss the most about one of the most unique voices to grace the silver screen in the last thirty years. The answer in itself surprised me. As I sat down and rewatched for the sixth time my personal favorite of his, Jackie Brown from 1997, I realized how profoundly Tarantino’s work has resonated with me and my peers for different reasons.
First thing that pops to mind when one thinks of QT is blood. Lots of it. Blood, action and the endless, perfectly colorful dialogue that elevates his movies from simple entertainment to something much more special. Something that has a distinctive ring to it that many have tried and still try to this day to emulate. Yet, nobody has ever come close to perfecting it the way Tarantino has done over the last few years, especially in his recent dialogue-heavy Hateful Eight, where eighty percent of the movie takes place within the confines of one single location, turning the movie into something almost identical to a theater play.
But… blood and dialogue do not work unless you have characters that make you care about those two elements. If you do not care about a character, then his death will not affect you. At the same time, if you do not find the character itself interesting, then why should you care what she or he has to say? That’s what I’ll miss most about Quentin: his characters, and the world they inhabit.
Jackie Brown may be Tarantino’s least popular film mainly due to the fact that people like to label it as the least Tarantino film the writer-director has made to date. After all it’s QT’s only adaptation (from Elmore Leonard’s crime novel, Rum Punch), how can the characters be his? It seems like a tricky question to answer, yet every time I watch Jackie Brown I find myself completely sucked into a world that can only be described as a world out of Tarantino’s mind. In fact, if a first time viewer were to ask me which Tarantino film he should start from, I would immediately point to Jackie Brown. Not because it’s hip or because I want to be a snob in not recommending the likes of his more popular works such as Pulp Fiction or Kill Bill, but because I truly believe that the essence of what makes a QT movie so special and vibrant can be found in his 1997 vehicle, where each quality of his is on full display.
Yes, the film can feel slightly constrained when compared to his other movies, perhaps due to the respect Tarantino wanted to show to the source material since there is almost no action involved, little to no blood and zero inaccurate historical reconstructions. You will not find Hitler’s head popping off here, nor will you have to sit through Biblical lines recited by the one and only Samuel L. Jackson as he prepares to execute his next victim, nor will you need to worry about watching characters blow each other to pieces like in Reservoir Dogs and Django Unchained. Instead, what you will get is exactly what Tarantino considers to be his favorite kind of movie, namely what he calls ”the hang-out” movie.
Characters are the true obsession for QT. By now everyone knows that you do not improvise lines in a Tarantino film as every single line that is on the page has the purpose to support the character speaking those lines. Every line, every monologue or speech is meticulously planned out according to the character’s backstory that only Tarantino himself is aware of. Before ever setting pen to paper, Tarantino envisions each character and the character’s place in what fans like to call Tarantino’s universe. In Jackie Brown, as stated before, this universe is not so clear as it is still Elmore Leonard’s territory. But Tarantino does a brilliant job of merging the two worlds together.
The titular Jackie, played by Pam Grier, was in fact a white chick in the novel. Her storyline and motivations somewhat different from the cinematic middle-aged black woman, once the most beautiful girl on the block, now a tired, heartbroken flight attendant of Cabo airlines, a regular victim of unfriendly circumstances and a simple pawn in the hands of a pimp and arms dealer (Samuel L. Jackson). Jackie is, more than anything else, the defining creation of Tarantino, who puts the novel aside and decides to empower the unlikeliest of protagonists, turning Jackie into a smart con artist, ready to do anything in order to get her revenge on the ones that set out to hurt her. However, unlike Uma Thurman’s sword-swinging Widow from Kill Bill, and well before Melanie Laurent’s ambitious Shoshanna from Inglourious Basterds, she relies on wit rather than physical talent and resilience to reach her objective.
In Django Unchained Tarantino took the chains off a slave’s feet and handed him a rifle to blow the heads off of those that tried to unjustly exert their power over him and his family. In Jackie Brown Tarantino goes against all conventions and gives Pam Grier, the queen of 70s blaxploitation cinema whose stardom had faded away as cinema moved on from the genre in the 80s and 90s, the keys to one of the most intriguing and inspiring female characters in movie history.
James Brown sang ”It’s a man’s man’s man’s world…,” which seems like the soundtrack that Tarantino listened to right before adapting Leonard’s novel because of the environment Jackie has to deal with. And here is where I disagree with most QT critics who argue that Tarantino likes to manipulate his female characters to the extent of reducing their power position (the example that is often pointed out is Jennifer Jason Leigh’s character of Daisy Domergue in The Hateful Eight, a character that is violently mistreated, often for laughs, by her male counterparts over most of the movie’s runtime); there is no manipulation in Jackie Brown. Jackie is the one calling the shots. And she is fooling every man that steps in her way.
It’s not a coincidence that the film opens up with the melody of Bobby Womack’s street anthem ”Across 110th Street,” where one of the line reads ”Across 110th Street / Pimps trying to catch a woman that’s weak.” Grier’s flight attendant is trying to cross that very same street while avoiding the traps set by men like her coke addict ex-husband, the arms dealer she works for (Samuel L. Jackson), his associate (Robert De Niro), an ATF officer investigating her (Michael Keaton) and eventually, the bail bondsman (Robert Forster) that falls in love with her.
Let’s go back to the idea of a ”hang-out movie.” Tarantino has often said his favorite films are films where you just want to hang out with the characters as long as possible, where the viewer experiences a feeling of understanding and thrill with the characters on-screen. The movies he mentioned on numerous occasions to support this argument are two major ensemble pieces: Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo and John Sturges’ The Great Escape. Both films are characterized by the presence of film stars of great magnitude such as John Wayne, Dean Martin, Steve McQueen and Charles Bronson, and a sense of camaraderie among these characters. Like most Hollywood movies from that era, the moments you cherish the most in Rio Bravo and The Great Escape are those where all major characters share scenes together and you get to experience the classic star power of that time.
In Jackie Brown, like in most Tarantino films, you get scenes where characters exchange lines of dialogue about regular life and the mundane activities that characterize such life. But they do it so effortlessly that you are immediately transported into another dimension, where the mundane (who can forget the conversation about cheeseburgers in Pulp Fiction?) becomes cinematic. In one of the first scenes of the movie, Ordell and his partner, Louis (played by Robert De Niro who is clearly having the time of his life playing a genuine fuck-up) sit in the living room, watching a TV show for gun aficionados and talking about how much money one can make off of selling guns in the US. The atmosphere is so genuine, as well as the conversation, and most importantly, each character fits perfectly the reality that Tarantino has created for them. That is what sets QT apart from every one else.
Think of all the times you told yourself or a friend while exiting a cinema theater, ”I liked the movie but some of the characters just didn’t work for me,” or ”I just couldn’t buy into that character, you know?” That is not the case with Tarantino. His world, and whatever follows afterwards, like the story or the main plot of the film and the twists and turns that happen along the way, are completely dependent on the characters that inhabit it. And even though most characters that appear in QT’s filmography seem to be so over the top (just think of Samuel L. Jackson’s ridiculous ponytail in Jackie Brown) they remain grounded in the film’s reality and are, oddly enough, fully believable from a viewer’s perspective.
Tarantino’s fetish for weird, over-the-top appearances (did anyone forget the gimp in Pulp Fiction? or Eli Roth’s skull-crushing Bear Jew in Inglourious Basterds?) comes with total commitment to the character’s development that include the character’s origins, motivations and flaws.
An example of this in Jackie Brown is De Niro’s character of Louis Garza, a man with an absurd horseshoe moustache who’s just been released from prison for bank robbery. The whole irony of the film works around the fact that Garza is incredibly stupid and has a hard time managing the simplest of things, including hanging up a telephone. Yet, even with the little screen-time this character has, Tarantino paints Garza as a deeply proud criminal who does not tolerate insults (eventually resulting in his downfall) despite his constant shortcomings as the associate to the movie’s main villain. When someone insults his intelligence and questions his criminal record, Louis is genuinely hurt. At each rewatch, I find myself pitying this idiot more and more as I figure he is just having great difficulty adapting to the life of a free man. In other words, even though he appears as this clownish figure, a supporting sidekick meant to deliver the laughs and be the butt of the joke, De Niro’s Garza reveals himself to be a deeply troubled character. This is screenwriting 101.
To end it here, I chose Jackie Brown to make my argument because it is one of the few works by Tarantino that is not wrapped up in some sort of genre (unlike his later work that ranges from martial arts cinema, to war movies and westerns) and thus, allows most viewers to easily grasp the essence of what Tarantino is all about. Despite it being an adaptation of a famous novel, the writer-director and Hollywood native manages to do wonders in terms of character-building. The interactions always feel genuine, the motivations always seem real and instinctive, and the world these characters inhabit is as palpable as they come.
Nobody knows if this is the end of the road for Tarantino. According to his retirement policy he still has one movie left in the tank after the release of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, but just like with the twists in his movies, QT is a bold, unpredictable provocateur. Whatever path he’ll choose, it will make sense. Judging his work has always been difficult, and critics have always found pleasure in targeting his use of language, blood and violence, but despite all of this noise, Tarantino is one of the few people in the business who has remained true to his vision, sometimes even going a little bit over the top (not that it is a surprise by now), and for that, as a viewer, I am extremely grateful. Over the years I have had my own doubts about some of his movies; The Hateful Eight irritated me, Kill Bill annoyed me, Death Proof bored me, Inglourious Basterds rubbed me the wrong way on my first watch, and yet here I am, genuinely saddened at the thought of a cinema deprived of QT’s hang-out movies. If this is Tarantino’s last dance, it’s been groovy.